With great fanfare, Guatemala has launched a cellular phone application intended to combat extortion. But is an app really an adequate tool to address this issue?
On June 3, officials from Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office (known as the Ministerio Publico - MP) announced the creation of a new mobile app -- Denuncias MP Extorsiones -- that will alert users when an incoming call is from a number listed as belonging to extortionists, reported elPeriodico.
Emma Flores, who is in charge of the new unit, said around 10,000 of Guatemala’s 22 million phone lines are known to be used by extortionists. These phone numbers have been complied into a database used by the new application.
The app -- which is available to download for free from Google Play for those with Android phones -- also gives users a means to report extortion cases directly to the MP. (See video below) Those without smart phones can also now report extortions via the MP’s website or by calling a hotline.
According to Flores, there have been over 17,000 reported cases of extortion in Guatemala since 2013, with data from Guatemala’s Interior Ministry estimating extortionists have made over $47 million from businesses and the transportation sector in 2015 alone.
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The introduction of this new technological solution is unlikely to be a silver bullet that eradicates Guatemala’s extortion problem. Past technological “fix-alls,” such as introducing new payment systems on public transport or jamming cell phone signals around the country’s prisons (where many extortion calls originate), have done next to nothing towards lowering extortion rates.
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Additionally, criminals can easily steal phones, change SIM cards, or buy pre-paid phones and calling cards with new and unique numbers. These tactics render the MP's extortion database useless. Furthermore, extortionists can easily demand money from buses and small businesses in person, without the need of a cell phone.
There are no shortcuts to citizen security. The government would do better investing more money in the new anti-extortion unit. That unit will have 250 people and has received funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). But it will certainly need technological tools to help it with its investigations.